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International relations theory in the past 30 years

If Salma Hayek returned to the academy, what would she have missed?

Actress and producer Salma Hayek attends a news conference to promote her film “Monarca” in Mexico City on Sept. 10, 2019. (Marco Ugarte/AP)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is off to Seattle, site of this year’s American Political Science Association meeting. The conference this year will be different in multiple ways. It will be the first one not held on Labor Day weekend. Because of the delta variant of the coronavirus, this conference also will be decidedly smaller than previous ones.

Indeed, this decline in attendance is prompting questions, such as, “What is the value of large academic conferences? Is there anything new to learn?”

This question reminds me of an amusing plot contrivance in Netflix’s “The Chair”: the idea that the character played by David Duchovny thinks he can return to teaching in a college-level English department 30 years after walking away from the discipline and his dissertation. There is a very amusing scene in which Ji-Yoon, the exasperated department chair played by Sandra Oh, has to explain to the Duchovny character that he has missed a few things in his three decades away from the field. He asks, “Like what?” She responds with a list of new theoretical and methodological approaches.

That scene got me to thinking about my own field. It would be mildly discouraging for someone to return to the social sciences after 30 years and discover that not much had changed either in theory or method. Ideally, a social science should be an exercise in knowledge cumulation.

There are famous actors who studied international relations in school — Salma Hayek did while attending the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, for example. If she decided to return to the academy 30 years after leaving, what would I have to tell her she had missed while acting on the stage and screen?

I can think of a few developments. On the theoretical side, an awful lot of theories have been developed since 1991. Social constructivism was just emerging as a school of thought 30 years ago. Feminist approaches to international politics were about to explode. Postcolonial approaches to international relations would emerge a decade later. Network analysis did not exist, and now it is responsible for some pretty groundbreaking work. At the same time, “middle-range” theories also were promulgated — approaches that focused on very limited moments in time to analyze discrete decisions. These include open economy politics, the practice turn and even the temporal turn to some extent.

Developments have occurred on the methodological side, as well. Experimental methods were just beginning to catch on in economics, and it would take political science another decade to adopt such techniques. A lot of these experiments are open to questions about replicability, but some of the more imaginative uses have left their mark on the field.

This is all very abstract. Are there substantive, policy-relevant issue areas in which knowledge cumulation has made a difference? Again, I would say yes. My own area of expertise is economic statecraft, and this has gone from being a neglected backwater to a dynamic area of research that has, in turn, affected how policymakers think about sanctions (though not always for the better). Research on how individual leaders (and their backgrounds) affect international interactions has made great headway since an article bemoaned the dearth of scholarship in this area a generation ago. Work on audience costs in international politics also has made significant strides.

Lastly, there are far more opportunities for public engagement and public policy analysis than there were 30 years ago. Universities remain keen on “impact,” and someone returning to the academy after a 30-year absence would be surprised at how much the gap has been bridged between the academy and the policymaking community.

Thirty years has also meant a lot of fads have come and gone. And I am not going to claim that the discipline has progressed on every issue area. But the state of scholarship looks very different now than it did three decades ago. Much as it pains me, I fear that Salma Hayek would not be able to return to the academy effortlessly.